Used Vehicles Cases Against Private Parties in Small Claims Court

By , J.D. · New York University School of Law

It is often easier to win a case involving a used car sale against a private party than against a used vehicle dealer. This often runs counter to both common sense and fairness, as a private party may be more honest than a dealer. But fair or not, the fact is that a nondealer is usually less sophisticated in legal self-protection than a pro. Indeed, in most private party sales, the seller does no more than sign over the title slip in exchange for the agreed-upon price without any formal contract.

Too often, trouble develops soon after you purchase the vehicle and you must pay money for unexpected repairs. As is true with a used vehicle purchased from a dealer, your problem usually is not with proving that you suffered a loss. Instead, the key to winning is to show the judge that the seller of the vehicle is responsible for making your loss good. To do this, you normally must prove that the seller claimed that the vehicle was in better shape than it really was, and that you relied on these promises when you purchased it. The seller will almost certainly claim that he or she told you the car was being sold "as is." Remember, however, that an "as is" statement does not invalidate an express promise made about the car's condition.

EXAMPLE: Barbara, a 20-year-old college student, bought a used BMW motorcycle from John. She sued John for $2,150 in repair costs, claiming that the motorcycle was in far worse shape than he had advertised. In court, she ably and convincingly outlined her conversations with John about the purchase of the motorcycle, testifying that he repeatedly told her that the cycle was "hardly used." She hadn't gotten any of John's promises in writing, but she did a creative job of developing and presenting what evidence she had. This included:

  • a copy of her letter to John that clearly outlined her position (see letter below)
  • copies of repair bills (and estimates) dated within two weeks of her purchase of the cycle, the lowest of which came to $2,150
  • a copy of John's newspaper ad, which read: "BMW 500 c.c., almost new–hardly used–excellent condition–$7,500."
  • a letter from the mechanic who worked on the motorcycle for Barbara (see letter below)

In court, Barbara outlined for the judge what happened and emphasized that she had saved for six months to get the money to buy the motorcycle. True, testimony about financial hardship isn't relevant, but a quick tug on the judge's heartstrings never hurts. Next, John had his turn. His testimony consisted mostly of some vague philosophy about machinery. He kept asking, "How could I know just when it would break?" When the judge asked him specific questions about the age, condition, and previous history of the cycle, he clammed up. When the judge asked him if he had, in fact, made specific guarantees about the condition of the bike, John began a long explanation about how when you sell things, you "puff them up a little." The judge decided in Barbara's favor based on her clear presentation and the two documents she presented supporting her case.

February 3, 20xx

To Whom It May Concern:

It's hard for me to get off work, but if you need me, please ask the judge to delay the case a few days. I have been in the motorcycle-repair business for 20 years, and have repaired hundreds of BMWs. The BMW that Barbara Parker brought to me was in fair shape at best. It's impossible to be exact, but given that the brakes and transmission were completely shot, I would conservatively guess it had been driven at least 75,000 miles. And given the damage to the underside of the bike, it was definitely driven a lot of those miles on dirt.

Respectfully submitted,

Honker Green

Al "Honker" Green

In used car transactions, it's often one person's word against another's, particularly if there's no written warranty or advertisement. Any shred of tangible evidence that the seller really did make an express oral warranty as to the condition of the car and that the seller relied on those statements to make the purchase can be enough to shift the balance to your side. Of course, if you have a friend who witnessed or heard any part of the transaction, her testimony will be extremely valuable. Getting a mechanic to check over a vehicle and then testify for you is also a good strategy. Sometimes you can get some help from publications that list wholesale and retail prices for used cars. Some people bring these publications into court to back up their assertion that they paid above the "Blue Book" price for a used car "because the car was represented to be in extra good shape." This type of evidence doesn't constitute much in the way of real proof that you were ripped off, but it is helpful to at least show the judge that you paid a premium price for unsound goods.